Bottled water study junk, says leading microbiologist

A new study on the chemical risks of bottled water by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an activist group with a long history of grabbing media attention with badly-done studies, has come under fire from one of the world’s leading experts on water safety.

Dr. Stephen Edberg, professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Internal Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine, developed the most commonly used test to ascertain drinking water safety. He criticized the EWG for making scientific claims based on evidence that bodies such as the World Health Organization have rejected. In particular, he criticized the EWG’s allegation that bottled water was more likely to promote breast cancer cell proliferation.

“The study’s ‘breast cancer’ allegation is an egregious example of specious science. The test uses cells in the test tube, indicating that breast cancer cells grew less in tap than bottled water. The reason is obvious, tap water contains chlorine, which inhibits cell growth. No valid research would use tap water to examine cells in culture.”

A quick, but non-exhaustive, survey of media coverage of the EWG study (New York Times, AP, Bloomberg WebMD etc) found that reporters didn’t examine the scientific validity of the group’s findings or question the methodology of the study by seeking comment from independent scientific experts. Most of the articles repeat the EWG findings with the only added comment from bottled water industry representatives.

While we don’t approve of this kind of enhanced press release journalism – call us overly cautious, but we think it’s wrong to scare the public without checking out whether the scare is true – we cite Dr Edberg’s comments despite the fact that they are in a press release put out by Burston Marsteller and because he is a real scientist with track record of expertise in the subject. And it’s somewhat useful to have that kind of input into an issue like this, dontcha think?

6 Responses to Bottled water study junk, says leading microbiologist

  1. TC says:

    You left a critical bit of information out of your post: Edberg – whose criticism of the EWG report has already been largely rebuffed – is a paid consultant for Nestle and the IBWA (bottled water association).

    You might have wanted to disclose that, dontcha think? Especially since his point about bacteria contamination – his other key criticism of the EWG report – was absolute rubbish.

    The point of the EWG press release wasn’t that most bottled water wasn’t safe to drink (except perhaps the two brand names found with illegal levels of carcinogens in them), it’s that the industry markets the concept of purity and healthfulness to consumers, yet it’s not required to disclose water quality to consumers annually (as tap water providers are), and in fact, the water does often contain contaminants (the same as tap).

    The industry says it doesn’t demean tap water’s healthfulness, but a quick survey of comments by industry spokespersons makes it clear they do – including statements that disease outbreaks come courtesy tap water instead of bottled water, etc.

    Finally, how do you support your characterization that the EWG is a “activist group with a long history of grabbing media attention with badly-done studies”?

    I’ve gone through their report, and while paid scientists can rail against it all they like, there’s little disputing their findings: the randomly bought water, had it tested at reputable lab without an axe to grind (Indiana University, I believe), and found that two of the eight brands exceeded California’s limits for carcinogens, and that all the rest had some level of contamination, including a bacteria that isn’t necessarily harmful to humans, but shouldn’t be there anyway because the EPA suggests it reflects the potential for other contamination.

    If the industry wants the world to believe their water is better for you than tap, then they should have to prove it. Right now, it appears they can’t.

  2. STATS has recorded many examples where the Environmental Working Group cherry pick and twist the scientific evidence to advance their agenda – look at their claims about BPA, which have been rejected by the European Union’s independent risk assessment.

    The problem is that they define toxicity in a way that is not reflective of proper risk assessment. Citing California’s limits for carcinogens as a reason to be concerned about the contaminants in water is not an actual scientific measure of risk, as proposition 65 in California is based on precautionary thinking not actual risk assessment.

    The point is that the EWG always put the worst possible risk on their findings, which is why their findings need to be treated very carefully. That Edgard, regardless of his affiliations, has attacked them is worthy of a blog posting. That the media didn’t try to verify whether the risks raised by the EWG’s report were valid is really the problem.

    Bottled water may fleece the consumer for something that municipalities provide at a fraction of the cost; bottled water may be a waste of plastic; but there are serious questions about whether it actually poses a health risk.

  3. Doug says:

    I’m an outsider and don’t know squat about any of this. However, I’m always fascinated that ANYONE with a paycheck coming from a private enterprise is immediately suspect by these indignant, self-appointed watchdogs.

    Because someone works for an industry, or consults into one, can he not answer any of these challenges? Maybe, just maybe, he knows what the hell he’s talking about because he gets paid to be good at his job.

    What are EWG’s credentials? Why are THEY infallible? Who funds THEM? I have no idea, but I’m willing to bet that a large part of THEIR staff is populated by college punks with a watered-down bachelors degree in environmental science who have never held a private job in their lives. Why SHOULDN’T their veracity be challenged?

    Which then begs the question: tell me all about the person(s) who prepared this EWG report. What’s his/her background? Has he/she ever won any sort of honors for his insightful analysis? What distinguishing career has he/she had, other than to be praised by like-minded, self-appointed, self-policed watchdogs. Edberg’s credentials sound pretty impressive, regardless of who signs his paycheck. Now what are your guy’s credentials?

    This whole issue is getting ridiculous. I can’t even discuss gas prices now without disclosing that I once got a $.03/gallon discount at a Chevron station 20 years ago, and therefore “might” have a tainted opinion because I “took money” from the oil companies.

    It’s time you children grew up.

  4. TC says:

    Doug: Thanks for making it personal. For that, I’m going to pass on the rest of your comments.

    Trevor: That Edberg is a well-known scientist isn’t at issue; that your headline suggests the study was “junk” based on the advice of somebody who’s paid to say so is well, a bit of a problem.

    Not disclosing Edberg’s affiliation (was that intentional), nor the EWG response to the attack is seems a little bit like the kind of journalism you’re decrying in your post.

    Finally:

    “The problem is that they define toxicity in a way that is not reflective of proper risk assessment. Citing California’s limits for carcinogens as a reason to be concerned about the contaminants in water is not an actual scientific measure of risk, as proposition 65 in California is based on precautionary thinking not actual risk assessment.”

    I think the EWG’s point is that consumers should have the right to make those “risk assessments” for themselves, and that relying on bottled water companies – which aren’t required to disclose either contaminant or source information – is clearly a bad idea, as evidenced by the results of these tests.

    The industry markets purity and healthfulness; if consumers aren’t getting that, they deserve to know it.

    You raised the BPA issue, which is a bad example; the EU isn’t banning it, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to low levels could be a problem, and again, it’s an issue that consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves.

    I agree that there is no huge looming health issue being exposed by the EWG report, and that some journalists aren’t doing their jobs. Still, declaring the study “junk” on the word of someone with a clear conflict of interest doesn’t make for a compelling post.

  5. R Brent Stansfield says:

    See? That’s why I only drink bleach.

  6. You write:

    You raised the BPA issue, which is a bad example; the EU isn’t banning it, but there is plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that long-term exposure to low levels could be a problem, and again, it’s an issue that consumers should be allowed to decide for themselves.

    The problem with this evidence is that it has been explicitly rejected for being poorly done or irrelevant to human risk assessment, not just by the European Union in 2006, but again this summer, by NSF international, a non profit consumer affairs organization, the risk assessment conducted by the Japanese government, the CERHR risk evaluation here in the U.S. and two industry sponsored risk assessments. Europe’s food safety agency went so far as to criticize the National Toxicology Program in the U.S. for obsessing over badly done studies when it said there was some concern over neurological effects of exposure.

    The EWG is simply not interested in addressing the fact that there is a worldwide consensus among *independent* scientists that BPA does not pose a risk to humans. Instead it promotes the patently false notion that BPA can cause endocrine disruption in humans when basic science shows that oral ingestion causes BPA to lose all estrogenic capacity. So how are consumers supposed to decide between good and bad science, when the media covers EWG “research” without any critical reflection?

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